The gate below the dam at San Vicente Reservoir in Lakeside is closed when I arrive just before 10:00 o'clock on a late-April morning. The lake is closed to recreational fishing today. But I'm here to see fishing of a different kind, involving neither bait nor hook but electricity.
To the right of the gate, tucked under a grove of trees, stand the offices of San Diego City Lakes, a division of the city's water department. Offices may be too strong a word for the collection of temporary trailer buildings where I meet Jim Brown, (then) San Diego City Lakes program director. "Why don't you follow me up to the lake," says Brown, a stocky man in his 50s, dressed in blue jeans and a blue-and-white pullover emblazoned with the City Lakes logo. He hops in one of the white pickups parked outside the offices.
The narrow road to the lake climbs and winds up a steep hill to the west of the dam and terminates in an empty football-field-sized parking lot. On the east end of the lot, side-by-side boat-launch ramps slant down into a cove at the southwest corner of the lake. Next to a ramp, a floating dock stretches 100 yards out into the cove. The area is deserted except for a couple of black coots roosting on a nest of tangled reeds next to the dock, and a pair of white geese on the shore honking at Jim and me. Far out on the surface of the lake, just starting to ripple with a late- morning breeze, a strange- looking boat moves toward the ramp where we're standing. "There's Larry in the shock boat," Brown says.
Larry Bottroff is a fisheries biologist for the City of San Diego; he works for City Lakes monitoring the breeding-fish populations. His chief tool on that job is the boat that putters into the cove, powered by an outboard motor, and scrapes to a halt on the ramp in front of us. Bottroff, tall and lean with gray-blond hair flowing from beneath his cap and the tanned face of someone who spends his days outdoors, welcomes us aboard.
The shock boat is a flat-bottomed, rectangular aluminum craft reminiscent of the fan boats used in swamps and bayous, minus the fan. It's 18 to 20 feet long and 5 feet wide. The only seat in the boat is on a raised platform at the rear, behind a steering console. In the middle of the boat, a couple dozen Florida largemouth bass swim in a type of open tank -- about three feet by one foot -- known as a livewell. Another raised platform, surrounded by a metal railing, occupies the front third of the boat. From each of the front corners of the boat a six-foot boom extends out over the water at a 45-degree angle to the center line of the boat. From the end of each boom, six cables hang down toward the water like the tentacles of a jellyfish. And they have a similar purpose -- they are used to shock fish into temporary paralysis. But right now, the chains suspending the booms are pulled up so that the cables are not touching the water.
It's on this forward platform that Matt Dupras, Bottroff's assistant, stands as Bottroff steers the boat out toward the middle of the lake. Once we're in the deep water -- over 150 feet deep -- a couple hundred yards behind the dam, he cuts the engine and leaves the boat to drift. Grabbing a clipboard from the top of the steering console, he moves forward to the livewell tank in the center. The clipboard he hands to Dupras; from a compartment on the side wall of the boat, he pulls a lacquered board with a ruler built into it and sets it across the top of the tank. On the board he lays a rusted pair of wire clippers and a hole punch, then reaches into the tank and pulls out a bass. The fish is green and black on the top and white on the belly. He lays it on the board and calls a measurement -- in millimeters -- to Dupras, who takes it down on the clipboard, "347." Then, holding the fish in his left hand, Bottroff turns it bottom side up and, with the wire clippers, severs the right of two pelvic fins on the bottom of the fish about halfway between tip and tail. "What we do is" -- he holds the fish toward me -- "we cut this fin off. It doesn't really affect the mobility of the fish. And, if you cut it at the origin, it never grows back. This distinguishes that it has been marked and this" -- he punches a hole near the leading edge of the dorsal fin -- "determines the year it was marked. The hole will grow back, but when it does, it will form scar tissue and have a big knot on it. And you can always identify it later on. So we know by the position of the hole what year the fish was marked."
He measures, clips, and tosses a few more fish back into the lake until he holds one up for me to see, gesturing toward the stub of a pelvic fin with the clippers. "See, this fish is from a previous year," he explains while looking for the hole-punch scar in the dorsal fin, "actually last year." He points to a lump of opaque scar tissue on its dorsal fin. "That's what the hole looks like when it heals."
A few fish more and Bottroff pulls up the biggest one so far: "471," he calls to Dupras. It looks like an elongated football. I wonder how much it weighs. "We don't weigh them," he explains, "because we get so many weights [from the fishermen] during the course of the fishing season. But this is probably a four-, four-and-a-half-pound fish."
"Matt's dad," Brown remarks, "caught one of the only three bass over 20 pounds ever caught in San Diego County. That was at Lake Hodges back in the late '70s."